PHOTO: Newfound Wesleyan chapel

I was born in Basingstoke in 1946, and my early Christian life was spent in northern Hampshire, in in the churches of the Methodist Basingstoke Circuit, an amalgamation of the old Wesleyan and Primitive Circuits. I was brought to faith through the ministry at Church Street Methodist Church;  and in 1965 I began to preach in the circuit, first of all at Oakley.

At that time, I met elderly men in chapels like Wootton St Lawrence, Oakley, Charter Alley, Burghclere, men probably born in the final decade of the 19th century, who looked back to, and spoke longingly of, the revivalist days which they knew of in their youth. The quality of their aspirations and their conversation attracted me to that religion.
Also, I had a hobby of going with friends on cycle rides forty to fifty miles in length, and I noticed that the villages were dotted with Methodist chapels.

All of this prompted me to wonder how Methodism came to be established in my native region, and the more I tried to find out, the more I discovered that no-one had written the story. The desire to fill this gap in the story of the area has led to offering this article as part of the answer.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries there was an almost total absence of industry in Hampshire, which remained rural and agricultural. William Cobbett, writing in 1822 in the chapter of his Rural Rides entitled Hampshire, Berkshire, Surrey and Sussex, tells us that:

These counties are purely agricultural, and they have suffered most cruelly from the accursed Pitt-system… the luxurious, effeminate, tax-eating crew, who never come near them, and who have pared them down to the very bone.

As regards Methodism, Dr J H Rigg, in his introduction to William Pocock’s book A Sketch of the History of Wesleyan-Methodism in some of the southern Counties of England (London, 1885), writes:

Wesley devoted his labour chiefly to districts where the population was numerous… He left unvisited most of the purely agricultural regions of England; the sparse peasant population, bound to their field-work, the torpid tenant farmers, the coarse squires made up a state of society which offered… the fewest opportunities for his work.

The story for us begins with Dummer, five miles south-west of Basingstoke. On the Sunday 4th June, 1738, John Wesley wrote, “For from the time of my rising till past one in the afternoon, I was praying, reading the Scriptures, singing praise, or calling sinners to repentance.”

Charles Kinchin was Rector of the Church of Dummer, and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College. At the “earnest desire” of Mr Kinchin, Wesley returned to Dummer on  Saturday 10th March 1739, where on the next morning he preached to “a large and attentive congregation.” But Kinchin died in January 1742, and Wesley’s visits were not continued.
I have discovered nothing more about Methodism in villages near to Basingstoke till we nearly reach the end of the 18th century. About four miles from Basingstoke is the village of Sherfield on Loddon. Here, in February 1798, the dwelling house of Daniel David was licensed for religious worship, the certificate being signed among others by Sam Toomer and William Taphouse. Samuel Toomer signed elsewhere also for Wesleyan certification, and we shall meet William Taphouse later, after his transference to the PMs.

The 1851 religious census informs us that the Wesleyans in Baughurst had been using since 1795 premises joined on to a house but used exclusively for worship. Baughurst was in the Newbury Wesleyan circuit. In 1810 it had a population of about 400. In 1824 there were regular Wesleyan services there, at 10.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m.. A footnote in the preaching Plan states that they were held in a “rented preaching-place or dwelling-house.” They drew 35 people in the morning, 29 in the afternoon, and 12 in the evening. The steward was James Stacey, who resided in Baughurst.

Burghclere was also in the Newbury Circuit. In April 1794, Protestant Dissenters called Methodists licensed the dwelling of Mathew Giles “of Charley Cottage Burclere for the exercise of the worship of Almighty God.” It had a population of about 600 in 1810. A letter was addressed to the Rev. J. B. Whittingham, at the Methodist Chapel, Winchester, on 5th October 1825, asking him to handle the matter of a “Chapel in the parish of Burghclere” by William Worth, minister of the Gospel, Newbury. The chapel was demolished a few years later in 1837.

Overton we find Methodists meeting in a cottage in 1810. Then in May 1812 a house and adjoining premises in the possession of Stephen Sweetzer was set apart for the public worship of Almighty God by “Protestant Dissenters called Methodists.” In March 1816, a “certain messuage or Dwelling house” occupied by William Hasell, labourer, was similarly registered by William Griffith of Winchester, Methodist minister.  A chapel was built in the period 1841-2. At the time of the 1851 religious census the Wesleyans here drew a congregation of 42 in the afternoon and 57 in the evening.

Laverstoke, a village of about 100 souls in 1810, lies between Whitchurch and Overton. It had a reasonably thriving Methodist society from 1812 till 1822; one of the leaders was Edward Morrell, a foreman at the paper mill in the village.

Our attention also turns back to Dummer. In 1827 Wesleyan minister John Overton, of Andover, left a note for his successor to the effect that “a society may be formed immediately” at Dummer. In June 1828, the same John Overton signed the certificate registering “a Tenement or Dwelling house situate in Dummer now in the occupation of Joseph Wooldridge, labourer” for use “forthwith as a place of religious worship by an Assembly or Congregation of Protestants.” Yet the 1851 Census does not record a Wesleyan meeting in the village.

Sherborne St John lies two miles north of Basingstoke. The house of Samuel Loader was registered for religious worship in July 1807; the certificate was signed, among others, by Sam Toomer.

About 1½ miles further on is Monk Sherborne. Here the house of James Gosling was licensed, the certificate bearing the signatures four signatures, including Joseph Jefferson and Sam Toomer, who both signed also at Sherborne St John.

The Wesleyans made a number of attempts to plant their presence in Basingstoke itself, but did not manage to establish a lasting society till 1870. We have seen that they held meetings in a number of villages around, and by 1940 they had chapels in Newfound, Cliddesden, North Warnborough, Greywell, Upton Grey, Kempshott and Bramley. This was an impressive achievement, but does not really qualify for the words I used at the beginning of this article: “the villages were dotted with Methodist chapels.” The explanation is that the Primitive Methodists, who arrived in the 1830s, soon became considerably more widespread and numerous in the surrounding villages… but that is another story.

To continue the story down to the opening of the first purpose-built chapel in Basingstoke, and to see photographs from the twentieth century as well, go now to the sequel to this brief introductory article: Basingstoke: Church Street Methodist Circuit.